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Sure wish we could trace those bullets to the rifle that fired them

Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 8th, 2002

Instead of focusing on what to call a sniper murderer besides “sniper murderer” (“Terrorist“? “Chickenshit“? “Very bad man?” — links via various Henley posts), I’ll go ahead and open a discussion of a simple preventive measure.

That would be a ballistics registration system that allows any given bullet to not merely be matched with another bullet from the same weapon, but with filed documentation about that weapon. But as the New York Times’ Fox Butterfield reports (“Law Bars a National System for Tracing Bullets and Shells“):

The technology exists to create a national ballistic fingerprint system that would enable law enforcement officials to trace bullets recovered from shootings, like those fired by the Washington-area sniper, to a suspect.

Such a system would have been of great use in the Washington case, in which six people were shot to death, because so far bullet fragments are virtually the only evidence.

But because of opposition by the gun industry and the National Rifle Association, only two states have moved to set up a ballistic fingerprint system, and Congress has prohibited a national program, experts say.

It’s true that one of those states is Maryland. But the other is New York, and the law only applies to new weapons, meaning our local sniper had plenty of alternatives to a Maryland-store-bought rifle to put in his cold, hateful fingers.

To me, that argues for expanding the reach of such a program to the federal level, and subjecting all weapons to ballistics fingerprinting. Opponents like James Tartaro make some good counterarguments (“Ballistic ‘Fingerprint’ Scheme Far from a Magic Wand“): criminals could circumvent the program by defacing the barrels or other key parts of their weapons, or they could substitute other firearms less easily “fingerprinted,” like shotguns.*

But neither concern would apply to more than a fraction of the arms fired in the commission of crimes, and for these, we’d simply be no worse off than we are now. Moreover, the simple measure of a re-registration program — owners bring their guns in periodically for re-registration of their ballistics patterns — would help minimize the “defacement” concern and the “what about old weapons” concern yet further. Evidence of significant ballistics changes or failure to appear would be a red flag for law enforcement.

And sure enough, a national system may be Tartaro’s real concern, emerging late in his article:

The NRA has been dubious of this technology-based handgun DNA scheme because it would involve a sort of national registration system. The make, model and serial numbers would have to be linked to the samples on the digital files, and it wouldn’t take long to link any serial number through other trace techniques. Pataki and Glendening would say that shouldn’t bother anyone who is law-abiding; they have nothing to worry about.

I wonder if Tartaro’s concern about national registration systems extends to car license plates or not. But at any rate, such a registry is not a Second Amendment concern — quite the opposite: it would be faithful to the letter of that amendment, which invokes “a well-regulated militia” as the expected benefit of and requirement for the right to bear arms. As its defenders well know, the Second Amendment states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

…and not simply: The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed (as the NRA home page would have it). Just as any army maintains control over and detailed accounts of the guns in its weapons lockers, so would this kind of registry establish the kind of national census of firearms needed to “well regulate” those arms and the militias — real or virtual — that use them. Hunters could continue to hunt; families could continue to have their last line of defense against criminals. God-damned snipers shooting 13-year olds lose, the public wins.

Of course, I’m not counting on this measure to become federal law any time soon, because any conceivable gun control measure will appear to be the proverbial “slippery slope,” “beginning of the end,” or “salami tactics,” (so that “reasonable” positions like Glenn Reynolds’ evaporate on close reading) to gun fanatics, because gun owners take ever more expansive views of their “rights” (no registration, no ban on assault weapons, no waiting periods, nothing) and because no one looks forward to bitter political debates with armed opponents.

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*Needless to say, the NRA doesn’t like the Maryland law either. But its reasons are either disingenuous (no crimes solved, manpower allocated: it’s a new program limited to new weapons in a single state. I’d be shocked if it had solved a crime yet), or solved by a national program featuring repeat inspections. I suspect a well-drafted law, a good solicitor general and an honest Supreme Court — I can always dream — could overturn or limit the Haynes v. U.S. case the NRA cites to support the contention that such ballistics evidence would constitute self-incrimination.

UPDATE, 10/25: Welcome Weblog readers! You have gone back in time to October 8. Your comments and discussion are welcome. For followup articles to this one, see a 10/9 post above (middle ground in the gun debate?), two 10/18 posts (discussing James Madison and the Beauty of Gray) and/or a 10/25 one (discussing the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and Dave Kopel, noted gun rights writer). Also, consider visiting an exchange on the topic of ballistic fingerprinting between Mark Kleimann and Juan “Non-Volokh” here.

2 Responses to “Sure wish we could trace those bullets to the rifle that fired them”

  1. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Gun control, back doors, and a powdered wig Says:

    [...] what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind a national ballistic fingerprinting program statute that had an article 2 stating “This statute does not imply the right to confiscate [...]

  2. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Kicking the can down the road Says:

    [...] expanded guarantee to the right to bear arms would result in gun-lobby concessions to the state to effectively regulate ownership of those arms? Life doesn’t work that [...]

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